Here’s a treat to end the year.
Those of you who joined us at our Facing Race 2012 national conference saw our keynote speaker, Macarthur Genius and Pulitzer Prize winning writer Junot Díaz, give a barnburner of a speech on Friday night, drawing connections between everything from the privilige of being cute, as he put it, to the unspoken history of hurt among men of color and on to the Lord of the Rings. We posted the first 25 minutes right here on Colorlines.com, and you all loved it. So to send off 2012, we’ve cracked open the Facing Race vault to share the full video of Diaz’s press conference before the speech. It’s a thought-provoking conversation.
Here’s a sample, from Díaz:
… The fact that everything in our lives in the last 30 years has been increasingly commodified, and the commodifications of national and local identities is, I think, something that we haven’t really been strategizing around. So therefore, I think that people who don’t got shit feel that there is a little lump of treasure called my identity. And instead of thinking that this is a passport into connecting with other people who don’t got shit, we think of it as, like, “I’ve gotta keep this from other people. I’ve gotta keep other people from claiming this space.” You know, the same way, guys, the same way I think I heard the Republican party’s constant suspicion of Obama as an American. I hear various groups, especially among, you know, organizers, questioning each other’s credentials… nonstop.
And the flow, it’s incredible how it’s the same exact grammar. It’s this thing, ergo conquiro, this idea that even if we think of ourselves as human beings in our group, we rarely extend that shared humanity to another group. So let’s say if I’m African American, I’ll be like, I think of myself as fully human, but Asian Americans, I’m not so sure they’re really down. Latinos, I’m not sure they’re really down, which is a different way of saying —if we follow the logic, I’m not so sure they’re really human, same thing, and are worthy of my love and worthy of sharing this treasure called our identity.
[Update: full transcript below.]
Junot Diaz: Thank you, yeah, you are very kind, yeah. Question?
Andrea Plaid: Andrea Plaid with Racialicious. Um, and one question is —
Diaz: You guys are a great site.
Plaid: Thank you.
Plaid: Very much. One of the questions that several of our readers have brought up is your use of the word ‘nigger.’ And people are of course, in their feelings about it and I was wondering how you’d like to respond to that… especially using it in mixed race company.
Diaz: I guess it depends what’s the, I guess it depends what’s the, I guess it really depends what’s the question?
Plaid: The question is, some people — well, it’s more like a complaint. Some people feel that um you shouldn’t be able to use that. Uh, you shouldn’t use that in mixed race company. You shouldn’t use that in your blog. So I guess that becomes why did you use it in Oscar Wao, for example? When you — why do you refer to it in your readings when you could pick another such word that doesn’t refer to that word at all? Does that make any sense?
Diaz: So is it that the representation of that reality is problematic?
Plaid: It’s — I think there’s some people who just feel like I don’t understand why he uses the word at all.
Diaz: So, because?
Diaz: Yeah, I guess I don’t get the question. I mean I guess like, I guess, yeah… I’m not sure I, I’m trying to get the question. Is it that certain people — because — I guess the thing, like, for example, I represent child rape in my books, so is the problem that some aspects of our reality should never be represented? So that the fact that I mean the way I grew up, certainly when I immigrated to the United States, I was called three kinds of ‘nigger’ growing up. So what would be my artistic relationship to a reality? The same thing, there was an enormous amount of sexual assault, sexual abuse, incest and rape in the community I grew up. So the question for me is always that what are we — what is the resistance that folks have about representation? Because for me the question is, is the argument that this shouldn’t be represented? So therefore, for example, certain folks are not permitted to represent well, well what? I mean having been, you know, spent my entire US childhood being called various forms of ‘nigger,’ the thing would be, does that mean somehow because my sort of African descent-ness is not phenotypically recognizable enough? Is that the problem? So there seems to be a passport issue here where the… certain folks are permitted because their passports, at a phenotypical level, register something, and other folks are questioned because there’s something about their phenotype that doesn’t register something.
And I guess that this goes back to that old problem that we have which is — by we I mean the communities of color that I’m familiar with, which are not all the communities of color even by the stretch, but this problem of authenticity, where as a community we’re constantly pulling passports checks on each other. And for a Dominican who grew up partially in the Dominican Republic and partially in the United States, there’s something very deeply problematic about that, because in the Dominican Republic there was a genocide against the Haitian community and Haitian-Dominican community that was predicated on this similar reflex of, that certain folks have more humanity than other folks. And depending on the way we sort of spin the humanity — in this case we’re spinning the humanity of a certain level of blackness… and through Trujillato. It was the same thing, it was the same exact formula. The Trujillato used that formula to exterminate. In this case we’re using the formula to say, well, if you pass, you’ll be good enough.
But again, these economies share a very similar tendency which is something that’s called ergo conquiro, which is this, this ideal of subjectivity at the heart of we call modernity, which creates a suspicion around people of color’s full humanity. So ergo conquiro, we see playing itself out in Obama, the way that every single person was like in this sort of right wing madness, kept questioning him and saying well, give us your passport, give us your birth certificate because there was a belief that a black dude couldn’t really be fully human… and by fully human, of course in this case, the shorthand was an American citizen, but this constant suspicion.
So I guess I don’t know what’s the beef? You know, because also, not to go on, also there’s my sense is that the n-word is certainly when I came up, remember, I came up before social networks. Hip hop basically evolved with my childhood. I mean you know, Rapper’s Delight, which was for most of us that didn’t like in the Bronx or Brooklyn was the album which began this idea of sort of hip hop practices and made it really aware—made us really aware — we were 11 when this shit came out. And so what was so interesting growing up in this period that the ideas about blackness and the ideas for example, of who and what the n-word was going to be used, was actually local culture, and that there were local ecologies about this. And that you know, what’s interesting is that there’s some rules in some local ecologies and they don’t necessarily transfer to other local ecologies, yeah, so that some group of people could be using this word, but if you pull them out and send them out of Norfolk, it doesn’t fly because these local cultures don’t necessarily communicate with each other or have the same standards. So I guess the way I was thinking about it, I was just trying to describe the sort of local ecology of the n-word in a place like central New Jersey, which was a very mixed African American, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Caribbean community where the word was generalized among all the kids who grew up in the neighborhoods that I grew up in.
And so again, the idea would be because there’s a desire for an imperial blackness, for a blackness where one person has the keys to what blackness means, there’s an idea that the local usage of the n-word in a place like central Jersey is illegitimate and therefore, should defer to the imperial blackness of say Brooklyn, or defer to the imperial blackness of say Baltimore. But try to convince kids on the ground of that.
Diaz: So my thing is again, I would argue that the use of the n-word in my books is no different from the use of the representation of child rape. It’s an attempt to underscore the sort of complex you know, realities, but also ideas about comparative racializations and ideas about you know, the way kind of what we would call colonial subjectivities are rendered in these kinds of spaces. I mean but I don’t know. I guess, I kind of wig out because I don’t get the — I never get the issue. Because I wish those people would’ve been there to you know, to have been like, “Oh, he’s not a legitimate nigger, so don’t call him that,” when I was being victimized by that, but you know, it is what it is.
Questioner: [inaudible] reporters and you mentioned about the controversies around the campaign. I’m wondering if you wanted to weigh in on the latest from Romney that you know, Obama, for purchasing the election through gifts to various communities of color, the sense of you know, where, where this country is headed now and what [inaudible 08:56].
Diaz: Well, I mean I’m no expert. I mean this is from just a citizen, yeah, somebody who is an artist and kind of reflects on this, but I’m not any more qualified than the average person in some ways. I mean I think if it’s emblematic of anything, it’s sort of a sclerotic Republican party that is so addicted to its own rabid delusions that it can’t explain reality in a way that would make sense to somebody outside of their party dogma. I mean this is just kind of the nonsense that you think that you would see in a fantasyland, but again, I guess Romney has to get around to explaining how they blew the race and how those billions of dollars went out the window. And I guess the way he’s thinking of doing it is by doubling down on the sort of predisposition that the folks who are giving the money and that the organizations that bankrolled him have towards you know, viewing people of color as parasites, viewing youths as parasites, viewing women as parasite, you know, this kind of reversal of uh, of what’s really at stake, you know, what’s really going on. Because I mean if we ask ourselves, if I got my students from MIT to come in and register how much does Romney take out of the system vs. how much does you know, some woman in Area 4 in Cambridge, the only parasite in that formula would be someone like Romney.
You know, so there’s this discursive reversal as an attempt to obscure a social reality, a social reality is that the parasite, you know, and the people who are really mooching are the ones that are accusing everyone else of mooching.
Questioner: I think my question is to you, which is are we in, so after Obama was elected the first time there was a lot of [inaudible 11:11], which I think is you know, pretty clearly done [inaudible]. But do you, do you think that there’s been a certain amount of backlash against the 47% remark, but then also against this latest round, even from others in the Republican party. I mean do you think that there is kind of a tipping point now that you know, like it had to get very overt um to get better? Or do you think-
Diaz: Did it really get very overt?
Questioner: Well… right.
Diaz: I guess it depends what’s your POV? I mean from my perspective it was always business as usual. You know, it just happened to play on a larger stage. And so for some people who were not accustomed perhaps to seeing some of these white supremacist regimes in operation, but you know, it may have been startling, but I think that it was just pretty much business as usual. I guess I don’t know about how things are gonna play out because again, we’re talking about very short term periods. We have to take a look at longitudinal approaches—I mean I like the sort of plurality that was revealed during this last election, but again, sort of physical majorities has never been you know, themselves proof against the kind of nonsense that we’re seeing today. It’s just like just because people have the numbers doesn’t mean that they’re not gonna be captured and controlled by minority elites. I mean shit, it works well in Latin America, it works super well in Latin America.
So I guess I don’t know. I guess the idea that—I mean again, I just feel that the struggle continues and I certainly don’t think that the opposing forces, the people who oppose the kind of Romney madness, the kind of you know, the kind of sheltering of white supremacy that the Republican party tends to exercise I don’t think that opposition has been activated… has been activated.
Rebekah Spicuglia: We have time for two or three quick questions probably.
Jamilah King: Jamilah King, Colorlines.
Diaz: Oh, what’s going on?
King: So I know you were instrumental in founding programs like VONA. I wanted to know how you’ve been able to leverage the success you’ve had to create opportunities for other artists of color?
Diaz: Beyond that?
Diaz: Beyond that?
King: Beyond — well, including that even.
Diaz: Right, yeah, I mean listen, it’s you know, I think the point of it is always is that you just keep doing as much of the work as humanly possible. I mean I’m interested in it, I’m like many of the kids in my group, in my kind of cohort, we just came up as young activists, young community organizers, that’s kind of our background. I mean privilege is privilege. We all have an enormous amount of it. Certainly some of us have more than others and the idea is like you know, you try to use your privilege for what we would call you know, the good work. For me, it’s attempting to sort of not only encourage writers. I’m not only interested in writers, I mean that’s sort of trying to encourage young artists of color, trying to encourage students who are otherwise sort of um marginalized to you know, to go to college, to participate, to support you know, all sorts of programs that kind of make up the gap between some of our public schools and some of the more local private schools and you know, there’s a whole bunch of crap you do. And a lot of it is programmatic, like VONA, and a lot of it is just you sort of doing stuff and you try to do as much as possible. I mean I think for example, the Boston Review, I’m the editor of The Boston Review. We’ve published more first time writers of colors in the pages of The Boston Review than almost anyplace in you know, that can be found. And so there’s a subtle way that one can do this kind of work.
You know, me and my little group have given out you know, a whole series of scholarships, whether it’s students of color trying to go to art programs in Africa, and Asia and Latin America. You know, you find ways to take care of this stuff — raising money for Obama, raising money for Deval Patrick, trying to do kind of do the kind of work against privatization of the schools that was happening in New York City and continues to happen. You know, you try your best. Yeah.
Question: [inaudible 15:53] and I want to ask, I’m not sure how familiar you are with our city and history, but what perhaps do you see as the promise of agreeing to the keynote address of this particular conference and this particular city. You seem to clearly appreciate what the conference itself means. And so could you at least comment on what you think the importance of having a race-based conference in the city of Baltimore, especially our history all the way through the the Civil War and before. [Inaudible 16:23], that as a concentrated racialized poverty [inaudible] population…having this conversation in this city does mean something, and perhaps you could speak to what you see as the promise of this conference and why you accepted the invitation?
Diaz: No, I think that there’s no, there’s no question that sort of what, sort of the you know, the way that our national silence around, national silence and national obfuscation around issues of race, around issues of white supremacy, that that silence echoes profoundly in a place like Baltimore. I mean nowhere are the sort of evasions of silences of you know, these cultures made more visible than in places that are most in some ways victimized by them…where they have kind of a clear sort of historical relationship. Again, you know, a part of you, a part of me always thinks that the work is so you know, part of the work that we’re all doing or I think we’re doing, you know, has a lot to do with multiple strategies. You’re trying a whole bunch of stuff. You’re trying to keep your hands in a whole bunch of things. You never know what in the world is gonna work. You never know how you’re gonna move somebody. It’s sort of like being an artist. In many ways, doing this presentation and this keynote is sort of like writing a story or writing a book. You have no idea how this is gonna end up. You have no idea that this piece of art that you’re sending out into the world will have any effect on anyone. But there is possibility because you yourself have been transformed by art as one who has been transformed by activism…there is a possibility that maybe this could do something. So I think most of these things tend to be what we would jokingly call faith-based initiatives. You know, I mean what else is possible, whether it’s art or activism that you operate in the good faith that there’s a possibility for transformation and therefore, it’s a worthy strategy to pursue.
Spicuglia: Next question.
Question: My name is [inaudible 18:45]. So given the young people and especially young people of color elected Obama to office, as a fan of your books I’m just wondering how do you feel in the future as our generation gets broader and younger, it’s gonna change [inaudible] Like you did mention how numbers don’t mean anything, so what do we have to do besides get bigger and larger?
Diaz: Yeah, I mean I don’t wanna say number don’t mean anything. I’m saying historically—there’s a better way of saying it—historically, there’s been very efficient ways to neutralize numerical advantages, you know. Yeah, I mean that’s really a good question. I think part of what we, I’ve always thought needs to happen across communities of color needs to be for us to have possessive investments in each other’s achievements and struggles, which is a way of saying that you know, when you think of someone like, you know, you think of someone like Frank Chin. Frank Chin, who becomes involved in the Day of Remembrance for Japanese interment victims, who in fact becomes a person of a, a very important person in this movement, in the Day of Remembrance. And he’s a Chinese American, and yet he felt a, very much a possessive investment in sort of the identity of the Japanese folks. And one can say well, no, this is Asian Americans. Well, guys, it doesn’t always slice that way the way communities work. And I think that there’s often—I mean we saw with the first question. There’s also, there’s almost often a possessive investment in what we call our identities. That we can barely—we want—we think of these things as commodities and therefore, we hold them as if we’re holding money. Therefore, for example, the white supremacist way that it uses the n-word suddenly turns into a local treasure that we have to keep other people from, and that we, that somehow it becomes this thing that we keep our arms around. And that we can’t imagine it as a source of connection; instead it becomes a exclusion.
The way our identities are currently constructed, they are constructed not as points of contacts, but as exclusionary, proprietary sort of complexes. And I think that we need to think of them as our differences and our similarities always as launches, always as launchpads for contact, yeah? And so that if somebody has, for example, if the n-word is common throughout certain groups, yes, I think it’s important for us to have a full conversation of what that might mean, but at the same time use it as a point of connection, as a point to sort of build on it. But this proprietary relationship to our kind of ethnic identities I think is going to haunt us if we don’t begin to shift it, if we can’t imagine a world where a white Argentinian can come to Cuba and participate fully in revolution. Can you imagine somebody permitting that now?
We don’t, we, we—I think that’s very difficult. I think it’s very difficult, something like Jose Marti, who, Jose Marti comes from New Jersey, goes to Miami, goes to Tibor City, goes to St. Thomas… and this is with troops, troops from Miami, goes to St. Thomas, picks up troops and money. Then goes to the Dominican Republic, picks up troops and money. Then goes to Haiti, picks up troops and money. Then goes to Jamaica, picks up troops and money and finishes the attempt to you know, liberate Cuba, where he of course, dies. But could you imagine us allowing or thinking our national complexes being that open? Being like oh, here’s 10,000 Cubans in Jamaica, we feel like that you’re such a part of us that we’re gonna welcome you. I feel like our identities have become so much more miserly and so much more closed. And I think that we’ve got to figure out both at a national level and within or own communities at a place in the United States, how we can open these things up.
Questioner: Just a last question on that, [inaudible 23:12] CNN, can you talk about why you think that is? Why it has become more closed or more miserly [inaudible 23:19] identities specific to whether they’re transnational or even just cross-cultural within the US?
Diaz: I mean I don’t know if I’m the expert about it, but certainly I think that the fact that everything in our lives in the last 30 years has been increasingly commodified. And that the commodifications of national and local identities is I think something that we haven’t really been strategizing around, so therefore, I think that people who don’t got shit feel that there is a little lump of treasure called my identity. And instead of thinking that this is a passport into connecting with other people who don’t got shit, we think of it as like I’ve gotta keep this from other people. I’ve gotta keep other people from claiming this space. You know, the same way, guys, the same way I think I heard the Republican party’s constant suspicion of Obama as an American. I hear various groups, especially among you know, organizers, questioning each other’s credentials…nonstop. And the flow, it’s incredible how it’s the same exact grammar. It’s this thing, ergo conquiro, this idea that even if we think of ourselves as human beings in our group, we rarely extend that shared humanity to another group. So let’s say if I’m African American, I’ll be like I think of myself as fully human, but Asian Americans, I’m not so sure they’re really down. Latinos, I’m not sure they’re really down, which is a different way of saying—if we follow the logic, I’m not so sure they’re really human same thing and are worthy of my love and worthy of sharing this treasure called our identity.